The U.S. air travel system braced for enormous disruption this hectic holiday weekend as American Airlines, which carries one-fifth of the nation's passengers, remained crippled Friday from a pilots' sickout that has already hampered travel for nearly half a million people.
American's operations--and the prospects of an end to the week-old job action--had so deteriorated by Friday that President Clinton leaned on American and its pilots union to quickly resolve the dispute that has prompted thousands of American pilots to stay home.
"I urge both parties to think of the impact on the traveling public," who are "innocent bystanders" in the labor showdown, the president said in a statement. Otherwise, the situation has "the potential for enormous disruption" this weekend, Clinton said.
But negotiations were on hold pending a federal judge's ruling today on American's request that the pilots union be held in contempt of court for not trying harder to get its members back to work.
U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall in Dallas ordered the pilots to end the sickout Wednesday. But about a quarter of American's 9,200 pilots remained at home Thursday and Friday, and American's lawyers asked Kendall to levy an unspecified but coercive fine against the union until the pilots return.
The union, the Allied Pilots Assn., argued that it had complied with the judge's order, and that the union did not condone the pilots' action. "I've done everything but go to their houses and knock on their doors," union President Rich LaVoy said at a hearing Friday.
The continued sickout forced American to again cancel about half of its 2,250 daily flights, as it had Thursday. The airline also scrapped at least several hundred flights scheduled for today and the rest of the holiday weekend.
And no matter what Kendall decides, it isn't likely to be much help this weekend for passengers whose travel plans are being thrown into chaos, forcing them to endure protracted delays and long lines at ticket counters. Even if all the pilots reported for work immediately, it would take three or four days for American's operations to return to normal.
The hardest-hit markets have been American's hubs at airports in Dallas-Fort Worth (where the airline is headquartered), and in Chicago and Miami. But other airports, including Los Angeles International, have also seen major disruptions.
More than three dozen American flights leaving Los Angeles on Friday were scratched, as were many more incoming flights, according to a list provided by American.
The affected Los Angeles passengers included a group of 42 senior citizens from the Rochester, N.Y., area who planned to fly home Friday after a four-day cruise to Ensenada, where several of them came down with chest colds.
But shortly after they arrived at the airport, they saw on the monitors that the first leg of their trip home, a flight to Chicago, was canceled. So the group remained stuck while American tried to find them empty seats on other airlines.
"We have about six to eight people in this group that are sick, and I don't think this is going to help any," said Bob Flaherty, 62, an insurance broker from Rochester.
Bonnie Quackenbush, a retiree from Ocala, Fla., said the airline had lost her business, even though American employees again provided free drinks and sandwiches to appease unhappy customers. "I know one thing, I'm not going to be using my American frequent flier miles any more," she said.
The dispute is not over a new contract, as it was two years ago this weekend when the pilots briefly went on strike and President Clinton personally intervened and ordered them back to work. Rather, it's over the way American is integrating pilots acquired through the company's recent purchase of the regional carrier Reno Air.
(It's unclear whether Clinton can use much more than persuasion in this dispute, however. Under the Railway Labor Act, which also covers the airline collective bargaining talks, the president has limited power to intervene.)
The union wants Reno Air's pilots to get immediate raises that bring them up to American pay scales, and for American pilots to get immediate promotions created by the route expansion from the Reno Air deal. American wants to make those changes over 12 to 18 months as it trains the Reno Air pilots.
Regardless, this seemingly minor dispute mushroomed into a huge mess this week as more American pilots called in sick each day. Both sides agreed that the Reno Air matter was the spark that ignited a host of lingering, divisive issues between American and the pilots.
The sickout so far has forced American, the nation's second-largest carrier behind United Airlines, to cancel nearly 5,000 flights, disrupting travel for some 450,000 passengers, American officials told Judge Kendall. The slowdown also has cost American, the primary subsidiary of AMR Corp., nearly $60 million in lost revenue.